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tv   Tavis Smiley  PBS  October 1, 2014 12:00am-12:31am PDT

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good evening from los angeles i'm tavis smiley. tonight our conversation with ten-time grammy winner, jazz master, george benson. he's recorded with every one from frank sinatra to stevie wonder and written down] those experiences in a new memoir titled "benson the autobiography." a conversation with the great george benson coming up right now. ♪
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and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you, thank you. ♪ ten-time grammy winner george benson began his career at the tender age of 8 playing in nightclubs in his native town of pittsburgh and making some $40 a week and we'll find out how he got away with that in just a minute. played with some of the greats including miles davis and frank sinatra and jazz master. he's chronicled his life, finally, in a memoir titled "benson the autobiography." we'll look at the artery from his nat king cole project.g
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♪ if you ever plan to move travel my way it's the highway that's the best ♪ ♪ get your kicks on route 66 ♪ well, now you go to st. louis joplin, missouri and oklahoma city looks mighty pretty ♪ ♪ you'll see amarillo and gallop, new mexico. flagstaff, arizona ♪ ♪ kingsmen >> you sound so good. how much fun was doing that nat king cole stuff? >> it was a dream, man. i wanted to do it for many years. i couldn't convince my former managers that i had the ability. they would have been better if it had been 20 years ago. i still enjoyed every moment of it. >> i think his e, what was it
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that turned you on? >> suaveness, he crossed over easy because you understood what he was singing until he started speaking spanish. >> but his spanish records did pretty well. he did two or three i recall. >>2÷ his wife said it better, i was the fact that he tried to speak spanish that they appreciated. he knew it wasn't perfect, but the fact that he tried. >> has that, does that notion resonate with with you that you have success in some parts of your life because you dared to try? >> i did. i found out, it went upon like this. the great name for guitar, he put classical guitar on the map. he was the proponent of it, the best in the world. i was listening to a record he made and a little bobble
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happened in the middle of the record. a finger slipped. and i said, wait a minute. he's not allowed to make mistakes, in my mind. i said, if he can make mistakes, who cares if i make a mistake. so, i tried everything. i didn't worry about making mistakes. i tried my best to play what i felt. then one guy explained it better. he said, as long as they get the point, that's what counts. because music, like talking, is a language. so, if the person you're trying to get your point over to understands what it is you're trying to say, that's what counts. after that, well, this is good enough. wait until they hear this. have you heard this? >> at this point in your career, though, you don't make mistakes on stage any more, do you? >> are you kidding? i probably make more. >> i tell you what, when i hear you,íq i'm not hearing it. you're covering it awfully nice. >> i learned it from john
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mcdonald. he said, they don't know if you're making a mistake or not. i ran out of ideas one night and i ran out of ideas and i couldn't think of anything slick to play. i played a sound of a chicken on the guitar. the crowd went crazy and everywhere we went after that, they said play the song with the chicken in it! >> to the point of what the audience wants you to play. give me, i know you have a long list of stuff and i discussed this many times with you in the past, but i know that when you get on stage now, there is a handful of things that people want to hear that you have to do. and if you don't do them, they're going to be torching your bus before you pull out of the stadium. >> that's true. >> just give me four, five songs that you know on any given night anywhere in the world you have to play this, this, and this. >> we know we're going to have to play "on broadway."
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the biggest single i ever had was "turn your love around." "give me the night." "this masquerade." these are in the united states. when i leave the united states, that changes. my biggest song in the world is "nothing's going to change my love" all over the world it's number one. >> in the world? >> in the world. >> what do you make of th!+? >> i'm happy i record it. >> i mean, of all the songs you've done, why do you think that one became the worldwide leader? >> it's the same guy who wrote and produced my version of "nothing's going to change my love for you." he did "the greatest love of all. wae and my song "in your eyes." he can write. always been one of my favorite producers because he insists that he knows how to turn that song into a hit. he always wins. he always does. >> in yourback, you te book, yo story there is one song when you were recording you knew this one
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was a hit. any artist will tell you they don't know what is going to be a hit. you knew when you did "on broadway" it was going to be a hit. >> when we recorded it live at the roxy theater on sunset boulevard in california. >> sure. >> and i remember my grandfather was there, aretha franklin was here, chaka khan and a lot of the movie stars and producers and the place was packed. this was the second show. we tried it on the first show and it was too slow. i said, you know, let's put some tempo to this thing. you'll notice on the record that it starts real fast and then too fast and the audience gave me the right to and i took that thing home that night, i said, man, give me a copy of that. i want to take it home. we were outside at the patio at the pool at the motel we wereuc staying at and every time it finished, somebody would yell,
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play it again! somebody from across the patio. the next day, the producer said we're going to listen to what we did. this was on a monday. we had done that weekend. that's why we call the alum "weekend in l.a.." monday we were going to listen to it and i only wanted to hear one, "on broadway." and the producer said he put on the slow version. second show, friday night. and he went looking for it and he said, i think we erased it. erased it? i immediately got up and walked out of that place and i think i walked about five miles back to the hotel and steaming all the way. he called me up the next day, george, i think we found it. i got back over to his house and this was a perfectionist. he had his big speakers up and he had the engineer there and he put on the master and played it. and i said, man, that's a hit right there. if i ever heard it. he began, first he said, it's a
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little fast. i said, that's a smash, man. after about a minute he said, yeah, that's a smash. >> how did you feel, you mentioned "greatest love of all" a moment ago. how did you feel, i knew you met her when she was just a kid. i'll let you tell that story how did you feel years later when whitney covered your hit g "greatest love of all." >> it seemed strange a woman singing it. muhammad ali was the most famous man i ever known on the planet earth and it was a woman singing it. i forgot about the content of the song and how emotional it was for everybody. kids were, that's how she learned. she learned it in school because it was one of those songs that the kids sang to give them confidence, you know. she came out of a barbershop right at the empire state building in new york.
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i used to take my kids down to get hair cuts and she was getting her hair done or something. she saw me on the side and i said, here we go. i'm thinking -- george benson, my favorite artist. i liked hearing that. my favorite artist. and my favorite song is "greatest love of all." and then she told me, i'm going to record that song. and when i heard it on the radio i said, i wonder if that's that same kid, you know, i was talking to on the street corner. but michael meser called me and said, george, i found the greatest singer in the world. i said, they say that about everybody. i thought he was talking about a guy. it's a girl. i said i know that's the girl and tore it up. first album, 14 million copies. and i found out i knew her folks. her mother was i everybody knows her and loved
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her in new york. so, it was a nice hookup and i'm glad she was the one to benefit and she was everything they touted her out to be. >> that's funny. she meet you on the sidewalk as a kid and say one day i'm going to record this song and years liter she did and sold a bunch of records. >> every time i hear that song. >> so, whitney was singing as a kid in church with her mama, sissy houston and you were playing the ukulele of all things. >> little georgy benson. >> in pittsburgh. >> they still call me georgy in pittsburgh. so, yeah my, stmother met my stepfather and he caught me messing with his electric guitar and he tried to show me some chords but my hands were too small. he found a ukulele in a garbage can and he glued it back together because he was a great
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all around guy. he was electrician and he taught me two or three chords and i found out that i could relate that to everything i was singing. so, one day i was late getting down to the paper stand and i grabbed it and took it with me. i was serenading some young girls on the sidewalk, you know. i went down to the paper stand and i left my ukulele at the paper stand and i sold one paper and i was in the store spending the 20 cent tip and looking at the candy counter and a guy came. he said, hey, boy, can you play that thing? i turned around. my cousin took his baseball cap off because he saw people going in their pocket. he went around and, man, we were making a fortune. >> and the fortune was $3. >> i said that's all i have to do to make some money? i went out every evening, my mother didn't even know i was doing that. she woke up one morning and
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looked under my pillow and saw all this money. where did you get this money? >> you were in trouble, too. >> a guy saw me doing that and he said, introduce me to your parents. so he talked them into letting me work at his nightclub. my mother said, absolutely not, he has to go to school. not on saturday. we'll work friday night and saturday night and that's two nights and he offered her $40 a night. she couldn't refuse that. so, we did get in trouble doing that, but that was an incredible experience, man. working in a nightclub. people throwing money up on the stage. >> you're just a kid. >> i'm just a kid. everybody going crazy when you perform. >> yeah. so, when did you figure out that, it's one thing as a kid to be proficient at this and enough to make a little money. when did playing become your passion? your joy? your reason for being? >> mostly as a listener. what i learnedw was how incredibly satisfying it
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was to make that sound. and to me that was the greatest thing. your parents were out doing it. so, the older i got, then money started becoming important. but all that time i was honing in on my art because i just loved the sound of the guitar. anybody that played the guitar was my friend. and not that many people in my home town played the guitar. but all the guys that came through, they were working with jimmy smith's band. you know, maybe not, but bill doggit. i would always hunt them down. instead of going to school, i'd bang on their door. who in the heck is that? i said, it's little georgy benson. >> little georgy who? can you open the door? one of my great teachers, one of my favorite guitar players. he wasn't a very proficient
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guitar player, but he had a guitar's mind. he knew all the insides and out. he just didn't have the technique. when he heard me play, you have the technique, come on in little, georgy, play something for me. i had this homemade guitar my father made for me. an electric guitar. what is this you have in your bag? it is my guitar my father made for me. i played and he loved me. >> you tell a great story about the first time somebody called you a guitarist. >> yeah. >> not abt guitar player. what is the difference and why did that mean so much to you? >> i had never heard it before in association with myself. i heard the guitar or the great guitarist barney kessel. it sounded like it fit. they were totally great. so, i had done a record with jack and a guy saw the show and he was criticizing, you know, critiquing the show and when it got around to me he said the guitarist, i think he mentioned
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my name and then he said nothing but terrible things about my playing. oh, your sound was very thin and he played a whole lot of blues but not a jazz player. they were all correct, by the way, what he was saying. but i never got past the word guitarist. the guitarist. after that i said, you know, i'm not a guitar player, i'm a guitari guitarist, man. don't you know that? >> so, the review was horrible. but what you pulled out of that was that, that word that they elevated to being a guitarist and that was enough to motivate you. >> now i'm trying to prove it. you know i'm a guitarist, right? i'm a guitarist. prove it! play something. >> you mentioned a name jack mcduff. every time i talk to you, that name comes up all the time. who was jack mcduff and why was he so relevant in your life? >> he was originally a basskf player and then switched to
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pia piano. only played one or two keys but he got the most out of those two keys than anybody i know. >> you got to work with your hands. >> he hired me when i was 19 years old and took me on the road. i was georgy benson the singer from pittsburgh who happened to play guitar. he needed a guitar player so bad he took me with with him on the road. the first night he fired me. the same night he hired me, he fired me. i said, don't worry about me. he said, i'll get you a gig. when you get to new york, i know exactly what to do. don't worry, you'll be working. did i hear you say you're going to fire this kid? he said, yeah. he said you can't fire him. because your band sounds ten times better than when you left here with another guitar player. i suggest we go in the studio and make a record with him. we did, and every record was a minor hit, but a hit. and that's how i end up with his band for two and a half years. when i came out of his band, that made me perfect for the recording studios because they
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needed solos and exciting stuff. so, everybody called me. that's how my reputation got big. >> if i asked you to give me, i asked earlier about what, you know, half a dozen songs you have to play or your fans go insane. you have so many hits and so little time. all these years of hits that you put out. but if there were three, if there were three licks, three guitar licks that you think most benson, what would they be? when we hear them, that is george benson right there. >> the beginning of "give me the night." >> i was about to say that. that's one. what else you got? >> you know something, though, i think that was my friend that played that lick. because bobby wolmac introduced it. they erased his part because he was slightly out of tune and my producer was a perfectionist.
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that became the song. it's an incredible story. you know, i didn't like that song. >> you didn't like it? what's wrong with you? >> not at first. >> tell me this -- >> it's like a skill. oh, come on, man. i'm better than that. i'm a guitarist. >> i could do better than just a scale. >> so, but he had recorded it for bobby wolmack. they had wrote it together and he didn't think it would be a hit. he never asked for his part of the writing. if he had, he would have cleaned up. >> i know he did. >> anyway, my producer, who produced that originally asked me to record. i always had trouble and the people want to fight me try to get it to play. i said hey, man, i want to play that. but then i remembered it was a hit, twice.cj by bobby wolmack and then by a
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group and people like it, maybe i ought to try this out. i said, man, let me do something different. can you get bobby to come down to the studio. the only difference between his version and mine was, he said that's what he always wanted to do with the song but he never got a chance to do it. i said, man, that's slick. let's do it. that's now, now that is the song. when people hear that. >> we know george benson as a great guitarist and a great singer. but somebody at one point told you, just play guitar. don't sing, george. don't sing. and i wish i could have met that person who told you not to sing. just play. but, obviously, you got past it. you got past that criticism. >> i was fortunate enough to run into a guy who became like my father. he was an older man, he was my manager and he tried my best to get me, you know, into the big
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time. he had grant green was one of his artists and he used to manage jack mcduff years ago and he was trying my best to get me out of the clubs and get me something big. >> "tonight show" in new york city. >> '68. worst show i ever did in my life. the performance was terrible. the band was scared to death. everybody was playing wrong, changing notes. when they start rattling, i start rattling.,v and when i came off my manager said, man, don't sing. you're not a singer. you are the world's greatest guitar player. he kept telling me that. i was not. but he kept building up my confidence, you know. and he said, man, don't sing, man. i said, oh, you mean the ch chipmunks can make a hit record but i can't be a record singer. okay. so i stopped. but every club i went in to
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especially if they had a girl manager, a woman manager, she would say, george, sing something. i heard you sing, i like your voice. the band don't like it when i sing. she said, i notice that when you sing one song, nobody leaves the club between sets. so, i tried it. i sang a song and everybody stayed. so i started putting one song in every set. it worked like a charm. and one guy heard me, tommy lapuma who produced this song, "my masquerade" i had just signed a deal, we were trying to find a producer. he said, i heard you sing five years ago in san francisco, i can't understand why record companies are not using your voice. i told my manager, that's the guy we want to produce my record. because they were showing me all the producers. i said, what's that guy's name downstairs? that's the guy i want to produce my7ñ record. he came up with "masquerade"
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just one guy who believes in you. that's all you need. >> beyond your gift, which clearly is a blessing, what do you believe in? what does george benson believe in? >> you know i'm a bible man. i study the bible constantly. i teach the bible. you know, i'm a bible conductor. and i have a lot of people, studies. but, also, i see how small things really help people to get over humps in their life. gives them direction. and, so, i talk to young people to try to get them to realize how ma how much power they have. people won't know for 20 years, oh, yeah, i'm a guitarist. so, when i see young artists, no matter what they're doing and what they play. i try to point out what it is
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that is sticking out. that has inspired me all those years ago. grant green, wes montgomery. and there's a story in there, i must mention and show you how it works. montgomery was with a&m records. that's what it used to be. he had a conversation with herb albert one day and he said, have you heard of a kid named george benson and herb said, no. he said, you will. that's all he said. when he passed away, montgomery in '68, herb albert asked his producer, creed taylor, you ever heard of a kid named george benson? and he said, yeah, i know him. he said, you know him? could you get him for my label. he did, that's how i got my first house. he gave me enough money to buy my first house. just because montgomery asked him a question.
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do you know a kid named george benson. i wonder if that never happened what my life would be like today. >> beautiful story. this book is chalked full of beautiful %zstories. the book is called "benson the autobiography." now, here's the back story to all the glory we see on stage whenever he pulls out that instrument. i'm honored to have you on this program and congrats on the book and hope to see you on tour real soon. you were amazing in l.a. appreciate you, man. that's our show for tonight. thanks for watching, as always, keep the faith. for more information on today's show, visit tavissmil tavissmiley@pbs.org. join me next time as we take a deep dive to what is grabbing the country's attention in the coming week. that's next time. we'll see you then.
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contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you.
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